One of my favorite moments in Band of Brothers — the nothing-short-of-amazing HBO series that tracks the grind of Easy Company across Europe during World War II — comes at the end of Episode 8 when the war is winding down and the men of Easy Company are doing all that they can to stay alive because they can finally see themselves as survivors.
Rumors of German surrender are running rampant and resistance on the front lines is almost nonexistent. Divisions and battalions and companies on both sides of the front settle into a comfortable stalemate — unwilling to risk death in the last days of a horrible war that saw too many men lost.
The men of Easy Company are angered when Colonel Cink — their commanding officer — orders them to cross the lines in a midnight raid designed to capture enemy soldiers that can be interrogated for intelligence on the state of the German army. Taught to take orders, however, the men move forward with the raid despite being uncomfortable with the risk of losing a man so close to the end of the war.
In some ways, the nighttime mission is a success. Easy Company captures two soldiers who are returned to the American lines for interrogation. But during the raid, a young private named Jackson is mortally wounded after entering a building too closely behind a grenade meant to clear the room of Germans. Watching him bleed out is devastating for the men, reinforcing the truly senseless nature of the war.
The next morning, Colonel Cink commends the men for their successful mission and orders them to return to the German lines the next night to capture more prisoners.
His order seems senseless to the men of Easy Company. How could capturing additional prisoners from the same German regiment provide additional information? Worse yet, his orders seem self-serving: Cink sees the heroic actions of Easy Company as nothing more than professional feathers in his cap.
As the men of Easy Company meet with their Battalion Commander — Major Dick Winters — to plan the attack, they are caught off-guard. Winters orders his men to do nothing more than report back to him in the morning that their efforts to cross the German lines were thwarted and that no additional prisoners could be captured. “Am I understood?” he asks. The grateful men recognize immediately that Winters is telling them to ignore the orders of Colonel Sink in an attempt to keep them out of harm’s way.
Can you see the leadership lesson in the story of Colonel Cink and Captain Winters?
The men of Easy Company were counting on Captain Winters to protect them — and in this circumstance, protecting them required creative interpretation of the rules. Winters recognized that the task assigned to his men wasn’t worth it, so he found a way to keep his men safe — even if it meant risking his own professional standing with his superiors.
Teachers depend on principals to protect them as well. We are constantly buried in programs and projects that pull our time and attention away from our core work. With little organizational authority, we’re forced to invest energy and effort into tasks assigned by folks further up the organizational pyramid whether those tasks are well-thought out or not.
When school leaders take a stand by pushing back against “orders” that are pointless, they earn the trust and respect of the teachers working in their buildings.
Any of this make sense?
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